Phnom Penh then north to the border

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Where I stayed
Morhautdom Guesthouse

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, February 23, 2012

After relaxing on the island we stopped off at Phnom Penh briefly before continuing north. Stayed at Willkommen Hostel by the river this time round.  We have come back to Phnom Penh to go to the Killing Fields and former prison to learn more of what happened in the Khmer Rouge era. 

So we negotiated a price with a tuk tuk driver and off we went.  Even the drive out of the city to the Killing Fields is interesting as we pass by kids waving (always at least one of them is completely naked) and pass wedding receptions being set up in the middle of street.  Feb and March is wedding season here and so most days we have seen marquees being set up in the street for dinner, never mind that they're blocking two lanes of a busy road.  When we get to the Killing Fields, the admission cost has gone up from price quoted in the guide book.  This is pretty standard as in the year since the guide book has been published they have added something to the ticket that makes it more expensive and in this case it was the audio guide.  The audio guide turned out to be the most interesting part as we heard stories of survivors and of former soldiers.  The Killing Fields is where people from S-21 prison where taken to be executed and buried by the Khmer Rouge.  It is unlikely that the people executed had anything wrong but were executed for being spies, having any middle class or intellectual background and generally not following the strict regime.  They estimate towards the end of the regime (1978 and 1979) up to 300 people a day were killed here and so when they graves were discovered, around 20 000 bodies were found.  Very few people would have known this place existed (especially to this extent) as everything was done in secret and music was played every night to hide the noise of the executions.  The stories we heard were heartbreaking and puts the memorial of skulls into context.  We could still see bones, teeth and rags in the ground as the rain makes the fragments surface (although all the main bones have been excavated).  The most shocking part is that several similar places like this exist in Cambodia, it’s just this the most accessible one.  When we got back to our tuk tuk, the driver offered to take us to a shooting range to cheer us up.  I’m not sure on the logic but apparently that’s what many travellers do, it would probably be the last thing I would want to do after that so we politely declined. Well declined after we worked out what he said, we first agreed as thought he was saying 'you like sugary drinks’ rather than ‘you like shooting range’....

Then next stop was the S21 prison where the people were held before being taken to the Killing Fields.  This used to be a high school within the city of Phnom Penh and so is surrounded by houses and restaurants which is a bit strange.  When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to oust Khmer Rouge, there were 7 prisoners left alive when the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979.  There were several bodies left, having recently died from horrific torture and there are pictures of how the school was found that day.  You can walk round the rooms where people were kept in small cells, see photographs of the victims, stories behind the lives of the Khmer Rouge commanders and there are graves in the centre courtyard for the victims found here.  This is a very sad and eerie place as the interrogation rooms are set how they were left.  Overall the day was very interesting, sad and definitely something we had to do (or for Jonny to do again) to learn about what the country has been through.  The thing that we actually found the hardest to believe was that after the Vietnamese invaded and set up a new government, the UN refused to acknowledge the new government and gave the Khmer Rouge a voice and a seat despite how they ruled the country coming to light.  This was obviously due to the fear of communism at the time but it seems incredible that only now the leaders are being brought to justice – one of the leaders, Duch, had his sentenced increased on appeal earlier this year.  He was the only leader to show remorse, as when brought to the Killing Fields during the trial he broke down when shown the Killing Tree (where children were brutally murdered).  There are more trials to come however a few more of the main leaders have escaped justice by leading normal lives since and dying of old age.

Back to the riverside after our heavy day, where we went for a beer by the river and played about with some of the kids selling bracelets, who found Jonny’s arm hair hilarious and would switch from selling us a bracelet for $1 to $3.  We’ve taken a stance on not buying from any of the kids so as not to encourage the parents to send them out but it’s hard to say no as they’re all lovely children who just want to have fun.  We did consider buying the kids something but couldn’t work out what as from the girl’s teeth, sweets was definitely not an option.

We had read about a Tiger Beer promotional event happening in the old train station at night so we wanted to go and see what was happening.  First task was to get a tuk tuk to take us, the guy asked was a little confused about why we would want to go to a deserted, closed train station at night but took us because he was pretty certain he would get an immediate return fare.  When we arrive at the train station, it’s in full life, with coloured lights, music and people.  He looks at us incredulously ‘how did you know?? I didn’t know!’ We paid our entrance of $2 each and got a free beer and had a walk through.  There was a stage set up for music (unfortunately the theme was hip-hop) and outside there were street artist painting on fake walls set up, t-shirts being made, small ramps for skate boards (not a great Cambodian skill) and old carriages for the VIPs to sit in.  Tiger are pushing their beer throughout Asia and so are putting on big promo events.  It was good to see something that was more for locals than tourists but there were a few tourists hanging about.  The performances were a strange mix of local music, gymnasts – at one point we think they managed to set a performer on fire with the flame throwing act and then some pretty bad hip hop came on.  We did see a well known Cambodian singer duo with some of the hip hop acts but then decided to leave as the music got worse.  Definitely a good find though to do something different on a Friday night!

Next day we’re on the bus to Kratie. It takes a while considering the distance, as usual, but we make it to Kratie by about 2pm.  Kratie is a small riverside town which was pretty lawless up until about ten years ago.  Now it is in the process of regeneration (we think – it’s not so pretty but does have the remains of some nice French colonial buildings), with numerous guesthouses, a restaurant and the main draw is the rare Irrawaddy dolphins.  We didn’t have time to see the dolphins, partly because we spent our time dealing with guesthouses.  The first one we thought we had booked, Balcony Guesthouse, was actually fully booked.  The owner (a very chilled Australian) blamed his manager but I think the Australian had maybe become a bit too Cambodian.  We then stayed at Morhautdom Guesthouse next door which was basic but only $6 and included cable tv.  But we spent our time dealing with the staff’s various sales pitches at overpriced rates and so eventually ended up booking our tickets with a different guesthouse.  The manager wasn’t so happy when we told him we had booked our bus to Laos with someone else as he was too expensive ‘but that is how we do business, we negotiate’.  Well mate, if you’re going to start at ridiculous prices we’re not going to do business with you and that was that.  Shame to end Cambodia on a bad note, but he was so pushy – ‘so you book now?’ ‘Oh you don’t have visa, you need to book now’ that we had had enough.  Plus we found a guesthouse we trusted enough to let them deal with our visa.  So next day off to Laos, and thankfully the guesthouse was true to their word. We had heard it was a nightmare journey involving being dropped off in random places but our guy guaranteed that we would be at Four Thousand Islands by midday without hassle and we were, so at least our faith was restored.

And so we had to say goodbye to Cambodia, one of the most interesting countries we have visited due to its stage of development and the relatively recent history hence the more detailed history from me.  I think many people who visit are shocked with the history and then pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the people as you could forgive them for not being able to provide the smiles for tourists but in general they seem genuinely happy to have the chance at being able to make a life for themselves.             
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